Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Judith Cook (PRF 07)

PASSENGER RAIL FRANCHISING

  As an ordinary passenger frequently using First Great Western I would like to ask you to think hard and give very serious consideration before granting them an extension to their franchise. Their performance not only during the Hatfield rail crisis, but both before, and after, has been absolutely appalling.

  They are currently blaming almost all this on Railtrack. I hold little brief for Railtrack and agree that speed restrictions have contributed to FGW's lack of punctuality—one of the worst records of any company. But First Great Western's faults go much further than that. Even before Hatfield, time after time I travelled on trains where the engine "failed" or there were faults in the rolling stock. I have waited at Paddington while they tried to find a driver for a train. I have travelled on overcrowded trains where the air conditioning didn't work and the toilets stank.

  But this is as nothing to what has happened this summer. In order to retain their franchise from the Strategic Rail Authority, FGW had to promise to put on more trains between Bristol and Paddington. To this end, therefore, they removed most of our HST trains (themselves ageing and prone to breakdown) and replaced them with 1960s rolling stock. Unsurprisingly the rate of breakdown has been even worse. Our local papers have been full of horror stories of journeys taking over seven hours to or from Paddington. During the rail repairs following Hatfield, we continually had to take buses for part of the journey. This has been happening again over the summer due to trains continually breaking down. I'm sure Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber will be happy to confirm this. (At least they sent him a crate of expensive champagne and a bunch of flowers when he complained). As he rightly said, FGW should be sued under the Trades Description Act since they are neither First nor Great.

  Journey times are now much slower, not only because of the poor quality of the rolling stock but also because they are trying to fit in more stops on this long journey and so cut back on trains. It would probably have been quicker in the days of steam. Information is hard to get and sometimes, I believe, deliberately misleading. I can give one example where we were asked to leave the train at Bristol (due to rail problems we were diverted that way) as there was a problem with the train and told that a bus would take us to Exeter as there was no ongoing service to the west of England. But no bus came and while we waited outside the station a Virgin train to Penzance came in and left. It could easily have accommodated everyone.

  I was invited on to the BBC's You and Yours programme to put my point to a senior manager who responded to it with what I can only describe as staggering complacency. All we get is the same mantra: most of the problems are down to Railtrack and FGW will be spending £18m on new rolling stock. Not only do we not know when, we have already been told that the new trains are not for us.

  For the last two or three months I have, reluctantly, taken again to the road. Either driving to Exeter and taking the South West Trains service to Waterloo (which is very good), driving to the Home Counties and picking up a suburban service, or taking advantage of trips to the midland to go to London for the day.

  Cornwall is considered the poorest county in England which is why we have Objective One status. Every effort is being made to attract business down here and increase our tourist trade. With an outfit such as First Great Western running our monopoly service between here and London neither is likely to happen.

September 2001


 
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